Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 525

The last of Robert Smith Surtees’ comic-satiric novels, MR. FACEY ROMFORD’S HOUNDS was published posthumously, twenty-seven years after the author had collected his earliest sketches from The New Sporting Magazine and reprinted them, with John Leech’s droll illustrations, as JORROCKS’ JAUNTS AND JOLLITIES. His eighth book, not part of the more popular Jorrocks series, continues the adventures of several characters who first appeared in MR. SPONGE’S SPORTING TOUR (1853). Facey Romford, a minor figure in that novel, is now fully developed as a clever rascal pushing his way forward into high society. In his genial impudence, Facey resembles the grocer-sportsman John Jorrocks. Jorrocks, however, is essentially a London Cockney who aspires to be accepted by the landed aristocrats as a fox hunter. The Cockney rises in class partly as a result of his hard work and partly from his good common sense that judges people for their true worth. On the other hand, Facey is a native to the countryside and plays the games of the sportsman simply to thrust himself forward as a gentleman. A calculating but likable opportunist, his real sport is not racing with the hounds but hurdling the class barriers.

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With his customary humorous skills, Surtees elaborates a tale based on a slender idea for the novel: Facey, a rustic confidence man, assumes the identity of his aristocratic namesake, Francis Romford, Esquire, of Abbeyfield Park. It is a plot device, ingenious in its absurdity, that might have exercised the greater talents of a Mark Twain, who was always amused by the complications following an incident of mistaken identity; but Twain, unlike Surtees, was interested above all in the psychological and moral displacements resulting from the mistake. For all his vitality as a jovial rogue-hero, Facey lacks both a psychological and moral dimension; and although Twain’s “Pudd’nhead” Wilson, in the mistaken judgment of the small-town yokels, appears to be a fool, he is really a sensitive, clever man. Despite his success among the peers, Facey remains a “pudd’nhead.”

By 1865, when MR. FACEY ROMFORD’S HOUNDS appeared, Surtees’ remembered world of sport hunting was slowly but unmistakably passing into legend. The reading public, for the most part urban and middle class, could not fully appreciate the scenes of hounds baying, foxes running in terror, and the ritual of pursuit by brightly clad, graceful horsemen. It was an idle age, with more than its share of cruelty, vanity, and waste. Nevertheless, Surtees described also, with wit and sympathy, the antics of the sporting country gentlemen, the shrewd upstarts such as Jorrocks and Romford, and the veneer of manners of a comfortable, still-privileged class. Although his plots were mere contrivances to display comic episodes, his characters flimsy, and his themes repetitious, his language always had a cutting edge. In his own fashion, Surtees was a master of the well-turned phrase, the appropriate epithet. As a satirist with a sure sense of the borders of the sane and insane, his best work resembles the early novels of Aldous Huxley and Evelyn Waugh, whose derisive laughter is directed at the bored, vapid aristocrats of the 1920’s, thin-blooded descendants of Surtees’ sporting heroes.

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